In Search for New Opportunities, Del. Farmer Discovers Success

10/27/2012 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delaware Correspondent

BRIDGEVILLE, Del. — Ed Zitvogel had heard the refrain for years.

The third-generation farmer in Bridgeville tills a 200-acre farm begun almost a century ago by his grandfather Leo, a German immigrant.

But it can be tough, perhaps nearly impossible, for such a small farm to support a family.

At least, that’s what Zitvogel had always heard. “You’ll hear you can’t make money off this much property,” he said.

But Zitvogel has found a way to confound those expectations. With diversity, creativity and just plain hard work, he’s found unique ways to make his small farm pay the bills.

Zitvogel grows hay to feed his Angus beef cattle. But that’s almost the only standard crop you’ll find on the farm nestled amid the soybean and corn fields of western Sussex County.

Instead, he grows Dr. Martin pole lima beans, high tunnel tomatoes, Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) chickens, throat-searing Scotch Bonnett peppers, Angus beef, berries, heirloom tomatoes and other nontraditional crops.

Zitvogel has always loved tilling the soil. But he worked as a design engineer to pay the bills and keep food on the dinner table.

That all changed when he was laid off three years ago. “What in the world do I do?” he asked.

“I’ve got to find my own way,” he said.

So, Zitvogel went to work.

He started to do Internet research, look for cost shares and find grant funding. A grant to study whether or not lima beans grow best when planted in east-west or north-south rows helped him start his Dr. Martin lima beans. “I wanted to be the Dr. Martin guy,” he said.

He now has a second grant to study the effect of water misters on his lima beans and that will help him expand his crop next year. The $30,000 mister grant is a tidy sum for a small farm family.

Lima beans often drop blossoms in the intense summer heat. The misters will spray the leaves with cool water and try to trick the plants into thinking it isn’t as hot.

If everything goes well, the beans won’t drop their blossoms and the yield will increase (In case you are wondering, his lima beans planted in east-west rows produced far more beans).

There’s a waiting list for his 2,000 feet of beans and he sells seed to buyers from as far away as Alabama, Kentucky and Florida to make extra cash.

Next year, he will expand and plant a full mile of lima bean rows. “I’m going to call it the Dr. Martin Mile.”

An NRCS cost share helped him pay for an approximately $4,500 high tunnel greenhouse for his tomatoes. He anticipates harvesting 8,000 pounds of tomatoes this year, which he can sell for $1.99 a pound.

He now has a $5,000 grant from AWA to study mobile chicken houses. A mobile chicken house is built on wheels and can be moved from place to place so the chickens don’t denude the grass and so they can fertilize different areas of the farm.

He tries to always be on the alert for grants and cost shares, for different crops and different opportunities.

“I try to open up the doors,” he said.

He goes to farmers markets and sells to restaurants. Events like Farm to Table or Farm to Chef help him build relationships with local businesses and open markets.

Dogfish Head, a bustling microbrewery and successful Rehoboth Beach restaurant, is among his best customers now.

“You really have to build and foster these relationships,” he said. “You can’t be isolated.”

It’s a sort of out-of-the-box thinking that was forced upon him by the downturn in the economy.

Now, he looks at losing his job as a blessing. “I should have done this at 24,” said the 40-year-old Zitvogel. “But at age 24, I wasn’t ready for this.”

Writing grants, meeting people, workshops, searching for cost shares and other efforts all helped him to find a niche that allowed him to build a successful farm, he said.

When you can do that and stay open to options, then “the niche finds you.”

His other advice to farmers is “don’t think you know what’s going on. In fact, assume that you don’t know.”

He said he knows one farmer that makes $70,000 a year growing only microgreens on two acres of land.

He’s also determined to have a positive attitude, something he considers important for the next generation. “I refuse to be the down-in-the-mouth farmer,” he said.

He was one of a handful of small farmers selected to speak to the National Small Farm Conference in Memphis in September.

Zitvogel had his chicken flock designated as Animal Welfare Approved (AWA). It’s the first such flock to receive the designation in Delaware. It meant that the house for his small flock had to have a required amount of perch space, a certain amount of ventilation, wider doors for the chickens, a certain amount of outdoor and floor space, etc.

The requirements are designed to produce a more humane environment for his chicken flock. But with the designation, he became eligible for AWA grants like the $5,000 to study the chicken house.

When he first began, his eggs sold at auction for only $1.10 a dozen. “My goodness, I’m not even going to be able to pay for the cost of feed,” he said.

His egg cartons now bear the AWA stamp and his blue and brown eggs sell out quickly at farmers markets.

He even investigated whether or not he can sell sweet potatoes to Delaware schools for school lunch programs, but found that schools generally want smaller sweet potatoes.

He planted Mexican-type pumpkin or winter squash called calabaza. He approached a Hispanic grocery store in the area and asked the owner what kind of vegetables he needed and how much he paid for them.

He found that there was a demand for the pumpkins, which were more profitable than growing standard pumpkins. “There was a market there we need to do a little better job with,” he said.

“It can be done,” he said. “It’s not that I’m any smarter than the next guy ... It’s not any one thing that makes $100,000. It’s $6,000 here and $8,000 there and when you add it all up, you’re doing OK.”

Zitvogel Farms is located at 13713 Haven Road, Bridgeville, Del. For more information on the farm, visit<\c>


Photo courtesy of Ed Zitvogel



Ed Zitvogel’s father, Ed, right, and grandfather, Leo, on the family farm in Bridgeville, Del., circa 1953.





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